Before The Bachelorette pitted 30 men against each other to win one woman’s heart, Americans watched a different show about random strangers competing for a mate: The Dating Game. Starting in 1965, the reality show featured a woman asking three men questions without seeing their faces, then choosing one to go on a date with (in some episodes, it was a man questioning three women). Of course, plenty of these couples did not end up clicking romantically. But in at least one instance, a Dating Game contestant ended up picking a serial killer.
The September 13, 1978 episode of The Dating Game was much like the other episodes. Like usual, there was a lot of unsubtle (and uncomfortable) innuendo. Host Jim Lange introduced Bachelor Number One as “a successful photographer, who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed.” When bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw asked, “I am serving you for dinner—what are you called, and what do you look like?”; he replied, “I’m called the banana and I look really good… Peel me.”
Awkward? Yes. But no more so than any other episode of The Dating Game (once, a contestant quipped: “My mother was Welsh and my father was Hungarian, which makes me well-hung”). At the end of the game, Bradshaw picked Bachelor Number One, who turned out to be a long-haired man in his mid-30s named Rodney Alcala.
But what Bradshaw didn’t know was that in 1972, Alcala had been convicted of raping an eight-year-old girl. He was paroled after less than three years, and by the time Bradshaw met him on The Dating Game, he had already murdered four women.
Onstage, Alcala didn’t seem different from many of the other contestants who had appeared on the game show. But when Bradshaw went backstage with him, she said something changed. “I started to feel ill. He was acting really creepy,” Bradshaw told The Sunday Telegraph in 2012. “I turned down his offer. I didn't want to see him again.”
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Before the show, Alcala had unsettled at least one of the other contestants. “He was a real creepy guy, a real idiot,” said Bachelor Number Two, actor Jed Mills, to Inside Edition (Mills later played the fat-free yogurt shop owner on Seinfeld). “This creep comes up and he puts his face practically in my face, and he says: ‘I always get the girl.’”
Alcala was very upset by Bradshaw’s rejection, and authorities believe it motivated him to increase his murder spree between then and his arrest in July 1979. Right before his arrest he met a 16-year-old girl named Cynthia Libby and told her, “I could do anything I want to you, and no one would know.” Libby, not taking him seriously, agreed to go out with him again. But he stood her up, and when she told her mom his name, her mother informed her that he’d just been arrested for murder.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Libby told People three decades later. “I still have a hard time believing it. I could have been one of the dead girls.” So too could Bradshaw if she hadn’t turned him down.
Alcala is now in prison for the murder of several women and a 12-year-old girl, although investigators believe the real number of murders he committed could be in the dozens. Alcala used photography to get close to his victims, and police have not yet identified all of the people they found in his photo collection.
It’s not clear if the producers of The Dating Game knew about his conviction in 1978, but modern dating shows continue to struggle with male contestants who are violent toward women. In 2017, viewers criticized Bachelor in Paradise for treating an alleged sexual assault on set as a cliffhanger. The next year, a Bachelorette contestant was convicted of indecent assault and battery just days before the season premiered. And only three episodes into Hannah Brown’s 2019 Bachelorette season, the producers removed a contestant without explanation amid allegations about his past treatment of women.